Features: August 13th, 2004

Transport Policy, Social Exclusion and Sustainable Communities

By Barry Simpson

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association

The fundamental purpose of transport policy is to provide for sustainable accessibility. Other objectives about environmental protection or safety for example, arise only as a result of the pursuit of accessibility. Accessibility is the ability to reach work, school, shops and other activities that we need to; some would substitute ‘want’ for ‘need’ and so include non-essential activities. How far we are to plan for wants is a value judgement for the politician; what is important for the present discussion is that accessibility focuses on reaching, not travelling.

Transport policy has often reflected a confusion between accessibility

and mobility. Mobility is simply ability to travel. The seriousness of the consequences of this confusion should be clear before the end of this short paper: policies to increase mobility do not necessarily improve accessibility; in fact there is evidence that the reverse has been happening.

Sustainability introduces the future dimension into policy making and reminds us of the need for control and the ability to continue into the foreseeable future.

Increasing travel – decreasing accessibility

So our overall objective is sustainable accessibility; but how far has this been achieved? The average distance travelled per person in Britain increased from 86 km. per week in 1952 to 251 km. in 2002 (Department for Transport 2003). We might expect that this increase would have solved, or at least reduced, any problems of accessibility. Not so; for many people, accessibility has deteriorated. Never has more concern been expressed about accessibility problems, in the work of the Cabinet Office Social Exclusion Unit (2003) for example, in the recent spate of multi-modal studies or indeed, almost any recent transport policy document.

How can we have got into a situation with more mobility and aggravated accessibility problems? As we have gained greater ability to travel, we have used it: we have chosen to by-pass local shops and other local activities and travel further to what we see as more attractive destinations. We have come to travel further to similar kinds of destinations. So many local services have decayed: the strong, attractive activities have become stronger and the weak weaker. This is fortunate for those who live near to the services which have gained in strength but not so for the majority who live near to those which are decaying. A more detailed discussion of these processes is contained in Simpson 2004.

Social exclusion

Such polarisation of activities has given benefits of efficiency of operation and better range of services resulting from bigger catchment areas for shops, schools, health services and other activities, but with two main costs.

First, not everyone has shared in the increase in mobility. Some people, mainly those without a car, have been left behind – socially excluded. The polarisation of food shopping has been a particular concern: ‘food deserts’ has slipped into the urban policy vocabulary (see for example Wrigley 2002 and other papers in the same issue of Urban Studies).

Social exclusion in a transport policy context, such as that used by the Cabinet Office Social Exclusion Unit, has been synonymous with ‘people with accessibility problems’. It is a result of disparity in mobility, a disparity which can be addressed either by increasing the mobility of the less mobile or reducing that of the more mobile. The former is much less contentious politically and has been the dominant approach.


This has led to the second problem of polarisation of activities – the unsustainability of such policies in terms of their environmental effects and resource consumption. Even if some change in modal split from car to public transport can be achieved by building new infrastructure, the dominant approach of the recent multi modal studies (see for example Government Office for the West Midlands (2001)), this is still likely to lead to a deteriorating situation on sustainability criteria. Although the improvement in vehicle performance in recent decades on sustainability criteria, mainly atmospheric emissions and fuel consumption, is to be welcomed, it has been far short of the increase in travel: our journeys to work, school, shops and for other purposes are less sustainable than they used to be. Policies to foster a change from car to public transport will help in certain circumstances but not at all times everywhere; outside the large cities bus service mostly have so few passengers as to be no more sustainable than the private car. There are serious questions to be asked about public transport subsidy, subsidies which are not needed for services performing adequately on sustainability criteria. Moreover, travel by public transport can undermine local services just as does car travel (Simpson 2002): the more travel that takes place, the more travel that is needed.

Sustainable communities

Finally, a brief comment on transport policy and sustainable communities, a subject which has had much attention from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM 2003). The fundamental elements of sustainable communities are lasting connections between local residents. It is widely recognised that such relationships have weakened or broken down during recent decades. This period has also been one of increasing mobility. Although it would be a leap into the unproven to blame the mobility increase for social breakdown, the coincidence is a warning sign sufficient to make us think very carefully when shaping policies which would increase it even further. We have to consider the possibility that when providing for greater mobility, as part of a policy to foster social inclusion, that social connections at some distance may be enhanced to the detriment of local community ties.

There are many cases where increased mobility has accompanied the physical decay of central areas of settlements which could be expected to serve as focal points for community life. Some suburban and inner city examples are explained in Simpson 2002 and 2004 respectively.

Thinking the unthinkable

There is a need to recognise bad news as well as good news in transport policy. Providing for greater mobility has been a palliative which has lasted only until the locations of activities have changed in response; it has created social exclusion, has performed badly on sustainability criteria and has been expensive to the taxpayer. Worst of all, as land uses have become adapted to more travel, more travel has begotten even more travel in a vicious circle.

The alternative is to take more seriously the question of what travel is necessary, and to be prepared to contemplate the prospect of restricting travel, by price or by limiting infrastructure. Travel should be regarded as a precious commodity to be used sparingly; one which can have consequences which work against policies to protect the environment, use limited natural resources wisely, to foster social inclusion and strong local community ties, all of which frequently appear amongst our policy objectives. There are significant areas of transport policy where the adopted objectives could be better met with reductions in public expenditure.

Whatever policy is chosen, it should follow full recognition and discussion of the consequences. What can not be supported are investments in policies which are in conflict with each other or a continued pretence that we can have transport policies consistent with our adopted objectives whilst continuing to allow policy to be led by the demands of the consumer rather than the duties of the citizen.


Department for Transport (2003) Transport Statistics, Great Britain.

Government Office for the West Midlands (2001) West Midlands Multi-Modal Study, final report

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2003) Sustainable Communities: building for the future, February, London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Simpson, B.J. (2002) Issues in integrating land use and transport policy: evidence from south west Birmingham, Geography, vol. 87, no. 4, October, 355-366.

Simpson, B.J. (2004) Increasing travel and consequences for service centres in part of the Black Country, Geography, vol. 89, April.

Social Exclusion Unit (2003) Making the Connections: Final Report on Transport and Social Exclusion, London: Cabinet Office, www.socialexclusionunit.gov.uk/

Wrigley. N. (2002) ‘Food Deserts’ in British cities: Policy Context and Research Priorities Urban Studies, vol. 39, no.11, pp. 2029-2040.